A hymn to our patriotic feelings

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 October, 2004, 12:00am

Recently, there has been discussion about a short video played on Chinese-language television channels featuring the national anthem, images of astronaut Yang Liwei and the Olympic medallists, with glimpses of children waving flags, marching bands and the Chinese characters for heart, family and country. It lasts only 45 seconds, enough to arouse annoyance and alarm - and much sophistry from a small, but exclusive, sector.

America's national anthem is sung in its schools and with much aplomb at US sporting events. President George W. Bush invariably invokes the divine blessing: 'God bless America.' Americans also love to hoist their Stars and Stripes on Independence Day, Veterans' Day and Thanksgiving.

This is patriotism, American style. It is the patriotism of a young country with simple, childlike demonstrations of exuberantly joyous sentiments for a beloved nation. An open-minded observer might smile with indulgence and an involuntary sense of joy. The solemn may feel the sense of reverence that is palpable in Americans when their national anthem is played.

Britons are less demonstrative, but one sees the Union Flag emblazoned on T-shirts, tablecloths, place mats, and the like. British humour may depict a man standing during his bath to salute the Queen when he hears the national anthem broadcast.

French President Jacques Chirac has just visited Hong Kong. The French, of course, are more sophisticated in exhibiting their patriotic sentiments. This can be seen in the pride for their culinary art, refined culture, imperial history, republican tradition, and language that was once the lingua franca of Europe.

Patriotic and nationalist feelings are cultural, political and historical. They form a collective consciousness. All nations and peoples have cultural symbols, rites and rituals, protocols and ceremonies. They are shared, outward expressions of inner feelings and values.

The beauty of the person on the street is his or her common sense. The Hong Kong public has taken in its stride this non-ideological, discreet snippet on our TV screens. The brevity and tact of the video, which reflect careful deliberation, reveal the tragedy of modern China.

Even in their own country, Hongkongers have to tread carefully, fearful of censure by foreigners, expatriates, and those locals who are subconsciously eager to identify with the west, the symbol of power and superiority. Chinese communism has a troublesome past. As a developing country that is still dealing with deep-rooted problems left by imperialism, China has a Herculean task at hand to forge a national identity that the people can be proud of. The west, like China, has its human rights violations. Yet, the hypersensitive have not found that legacy alarming enough to prevent deliberation on local partisan politics.

Imperialism has cut a deep wound in the modern Chinese consciousness, leaving more than a few people feeling ashamed. Hong Kong's colonial past has rendered that natural identity even more painful and embarrassing. A significant number of people still possess an ambiguous, conflicting sense of identity.

There are nonetheless those who, to varying degrees, identify with the more uplifting sentiment in the 45-second video. They should be allowed - like their western counterparts - the right to feel without shame, fear or embarrassment, that which is in their blood. Perhaps the bystanders could share in their joy as well.

Margaret Chu is senior research officer of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute